Religion at the root of Newcastle High School tensions

2008-02-28 00:00

This should have been the best of times for Newcastle High School. Despite a turbulent 125th year, for the first time in living memory the school produced KwaZulu-Natal’s top student in Nadia von Wielligh, a petite Afrikaans-speaking 18-year-old who scooped a record nine distinctions. She helped the school post the best academic results in its district.

But there have been few of the celebrations you’d expect of a school celebrating its century and a quarter and young Nadia’s achievement.

Instead, the Christian-dominated school, where I spent five peaceful years during the seventies, has become an ideological battleground since a relatively small group of Indian parents seized control of the school governing body (SGB) in June 2006.

It started on a typically icy winter evening 20 months ago when, as the Education Department decrees, the required follow-up meeting was held to elect members of the SGB. Apathy among parents meant the first election did not attract enough votes for a quorum. So, as the rules stipulate, a second meeting was called at which simple majority ruled.

As usual, many people in the sleepy KwaZulu-Natal town ignored the event. This opened the door for 60 motivated Indian parents cohesively led by local optometrist Paul Ramkissoon. Although they are little more than a splinter within the 1 000 pupil-strong school, the five-dozen activists dominated the meeting, voting as a block to seize control of the school’s governing body by winning six of the seven elected positions.

Education, along with religion, is an emotional matter. Mix the two and the cocktail becomes explosive, more so outside the metropolitan areas.

Conflict erupted at the first meeting of the new SGB when new chairman Ramkissoon instructed long-serving principal Jan du Toit to stop the traditional praise and worship at the morning assemblies and replace it with a minute of silence. Du Toit refused. The community rallied to his side and an alarmed parent body quickly formed the Concerned Christian Parents Initiative. After studying the Department of Education’s rules, they called a special general meeting.

This time 556 parents packed out the school hall. Suddenly aware of the hot potato their rules had created, the KwaZulu-Natal provincial Department of Education sent a posse of officials to chair the meeting and monitor proceedings. The parents called for a vote of no confidence in Ramkissoon’s SGB. Despite its own rules which state that this is the process to be followed, after some caucusing Education Department officials simply informed the meeting that there would be no vote.

Appalled at the outcome, the Concerned Christian Parents Initiative launched a twin attack through the court of law and the court of public opinion. Both efforts failed. An expensive legal challenge faltered, apparently on a technicality. And after a brief flurry of articles in the local media — and assurances to journalists by Ramkissoon that an inclusive policy would be followed — reporters lost interest.

Behind the scenes, however, the war of attrition continued.

The most public casualty was the long-serving and respected headmaster Du Toit. Tiring of continuous friction and Machiavellian tactics from the SGB, his resignation was accepted and he left the school during the course of last year to flip burgers at a Wimpy in the Free State. So much for the national commitment to education.

His deputy, Miggie Liebenberg, seemed an excellent replacement, calming troubled waters and guiding the school to academic success in the 2007 exams. I met her last October at the school’s annual prize-giving ceremony. Professional, warm and obviously liked by her pupils, she epitomises the committed education specialist in such short supply after a succession of disastrous political decisions in the Education Department.

Now she, too, has been cast aside, replaced by someone more to the racial liking of those controlling the SGB.

Where parent action failed to evoke change, pupils have started taking matters into their own hands. They are opening a Pandora’s box the consequences of which could go far beyond anything those currently involved might imagine.

The town’s newspaper, the Newcastle Advertiser, reports that pupils jeered Ramkissoon when he came to the school last Monday to introduce his new principal, Manual Govender. The pupils spontaneously cheered Liebenberg when she was thanked for her contribution as acting principal.

For his part, the new principal, Govender, responded disastrously.

During the open meeting, the secretary of the Representative Council of Learners raised the latest flashpoint by asking why the school’s annual magazine had not been published. After conferring briefly, Govender told assembled pupils that the matter was not open for discussion.

The Newcastle Advertiser, which ran the story over three pages under the banner headline “Pupils revolt”, reported that Ramkissoon’s group had stopped the publication: “The magazine, which was to have commemorated the school’s 125th anniversary, was according to the SGB predominantly white and Christian orientated.”

Perhaps it was. So what?

White and/or Christian characterise the dominant population groups (Afrikaner and Zulu) at the school, and, for reasons that should be obvious, also best represent most pupils who attended the institution during its 125 years. All of whom, prior to the early nineties, were segregated not by choice but through a political system South Africans rejected some years before the brilliant Nadia and her Class of 2007 entered the education system.

The African National Congress’s historic meeting at Polokwane was many things, not all of them good. But even the harshest critic must agree it was a triumph for democracy. The most powerful people in the land, those previously regarded as omnipotent, were brought to Earth by the votes of the majority. They have accepted the defeat, albeit grudgingly, as a necessary lever in our delicate democratic system.

If a similar election were held today among the parents of Newcastle High School pupils, Ramkissoon and his crew would taste the same medicine administered to Thabo Mbeki and company. But by refusing to allow their own rules to be administered, the KwaZulu-Natal Education Department is playing favourites. Petty bureaucrats have broken their own directives and blocked fair recourse because those on the receiving end happen to be from a politically incorrect population group.

While democracy was allowed to rule in Polokwane, it is being subverted in Newcastle. This is not lost on those directly affected, the children for whom every politician claims to be building a better future. No wonder so many young South Africans show their disgust by exporting their skills into a hungry international market.

How long will we, South Africa’s older generation, continue to fail them? — Fin 24.

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